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HomeIssue 4Experience Aboriginal culture in the heart of the CBD

Experience Aboriginal culture in the heart of the CBD

p2050 Mbantua MK 450By KIERAN FINNANE
An experience of Arrernte culture right in the middle of town – a small group of people are not waiting for multimillion dollar centres to offer it. For three weeks from mid-June the old op shop behind Flynn Church will be transformed as “a place for language – apmere angkentye-kenhe”.
Left: Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM, at Mbantua Festival in 2013. 
The town is invited to drop in and make a start on acquiring a vocabulary of 50 words in Arrernte, the first language of this place, and one of the most richly surviving, with an estimated 3000 speakers of the closely related Eastern and Central Arrernte dialects.
The word list will include place names of the key sites of the town, such as the hills rising around its centre, the river running through it, the peak of the ranges that is the nose of the Dreamtime dog.
The people behind this initiative are the Arrernte families who gather at the healing centre, Akeyulerre Inc, in partnership with the artists who gather at Watch The Space (WTS).
p2431 Beth Sometimes 300I caught up with two women, one from each group, who are taking a lead – Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM and Beth Sometimes. For years Mrs Turner has been one of the great champions of Arrernte language and culture, within her community and as a public figure, an important cultural go-between in town, and as an author, most recently of Iwenhe Tyerrtye: what it means to be an Aboriginal person (2010) with Barry McDonald.
Right: Beth Sometimes in her mwekarte
Ms Sometimes is an artist although often drawn to work outside the ‘art  world’. She is also board secretary at WTS. Along her unusual way, she has become a fluent Pitjantjatjara speaker, acquiring the language while living and working at Ernabella in the mid-2000s. And now that she is based here in Mparntwe / Alice Springs she is making progress in Arrernte.
As we talk, Mrs Turner often turns to her and speaks in Arrernte and Ms Sometimes either follows and replies or else repeats the words, getting the pronunciation down. She’s not afraid to make mistakes – an essential risk in learning a language, but the rewards are great.
“Everyone living here should have some knowledge of the language of this place,” she says. “Australia has a very monolingual culture and we take a lot for granted about what is being understood.”
Mrs Turner comments that Aboriginal people, wanting to be polite, might often smile and nod without really understanding.
“Language also plays a huge role in how people relate to place,” says Ms Sometimes – so Arrernte words will also offer Arrernte perspectives on their country.
For Mrs Turner “good quality” Arrernte is a priority for keeping the language strong into the future. People living in town are much more influenced by English as the language of the dominant culture, with young people in particular “mixing up” Arrernte and English.
The word list for the project is likely to include some that people will have already seen written in various contexts around the town: apmere (place) for example, as in the Apmere Mwerre (good place) Visitor Park on Len Kittle Drive, and indeed as in apmere angkentye-kenhe – a place for language, the title for this Arrernte learning program.
All sorts of resources to help learners will be available in the transformed old op shop, including some to take away, such as a cap with mwekarte printed on it, meaning ‘hat’.
A specially created map will show the names of key sites that Arrernte people would like the rest of us to know and audio assistance will be at hand to help with the pronunciation.

Above, from left: The apmere angkentye-kenhe working group Zoya Godoroja-Prieckaerts, Amelia Turner, Beth Sometimes, Lorraine Gorey, Hannah Treacey, Margaret Kemarre Turner, Margaret Carew, Leonie Palmer with Mathias Palmer, and Alison Furber. Just visible through the window, Dan Murphy. 

To my comment that the spelling of Arrernte names can be challenging, Ms Sometimes answers with a comment from Amelia Turner (daughter of MK Turner, and current female chairperson of Akeyulerre Inc) – that learning English, to speak it, to read and write it, is also hard for Arrernte speakers.
There’s a useful article on the Central Land Council’s website that explains the reason why the modern spelling of Arrernte is the way it is. It basically comes down to this: there are sounds in Arrernte that do not exist in English so they can’t be spelled using English spelling conventions; and English spelling is not necessarily consistent when it comes to making sounds, for example, bury and berry, though and bough, cough and enough, just to mention a few.
So go with the flow, is the advice, and take advantage of an interesting introduction, with a variety of learning materials on offer over the three weeks.
Mrs Turner says she wants to have language about food, for example, getting it and eating it:  “Why you have yam, honey ant … what it is, what it does for you … when you go hunting, getting kangaroo … it’s really important .”
This, with her philosophical bent, will be much more than an introduction to a bush ‘supermarket’. Hunting, gathering, cooking, eating are part of culture. She writes about this in Iwenhe Tyerrtye: The “eaters get eaten”, she says, describing the cycle in which humans take part. “We’re not fighting with our animals over the same food … something always eats something else … The rock wallaby eats the grass, and the carpet snake, antetherrke, eats that wallaby akwerrke, and we eat that  antetherrke, you know? …
“We’ve always cooked and eaten all kere with respect. Even introduced animals we cook and eat with respect  because … it was meat from those other people’s Sacred Land, a traditional food for a traditional people somewhere.”
The program will include screenings, with a relative wealth of material to choose from – many language learning resources have been made over the years, not to mention a range of productions from the extensive CAAMA catalogue.
These are being added to all the time from a variety of sources, as we saw in the recent Indigenous language film program, that was among the sold-out sessions of the Something Somewhere film festival. The program was called Arrpenhe-nthenhe – meaning ‘where’s the other one?’.
p2431 Apmere Mother tree 660

Above: Miles Turner as the dingo in Mother Tree

It included two Arrernte films. The first, produced by Akeyulerre Inc, featured the artist Therese Ryder, speaking in Eastern Arrernte, telling a Dreamtime story called Mother Tree, which she had heard from her uncle.
The tree is a river red gum, an old one with a hollow trunk – the mother providing shelter and protection to her children. The film cut between Mrs Ryder telling the story and scenes featuring successive pairs of children, playing the story’s brother and sister, growing older with the passing seasons. They roam the country in search of food – yam, wild onion, bush banana, bush orange, birds – with the brother all the while keeping his eye out for danger, embodied by a dingo.
When the dingo (played by Miles Turner, see still image above) is on the prowl the children run to the Mother Tree, to the safety of its hollow trunk. The ending isn’t a happy one, but I won’t spoil it by telling you, in case this film shows again as part of apmere angkentye-kenhe. It would be a good one for learning, with the repetition of words and phrases built into its telling.
The second Arrernte film in Arrpenhe-nthenhe combined contemporary scenes with archival footage – 8mm film shot in the 1950s by Father Tom Dixon. This is the priest who later became well known for his campaign in defence of Arrernte man Rupert Max Stuart, on death row in South Australia for the murder of a little girl in 1958. (Mr Stuart’s sentence was commuted and he was eventually released, going on to become chairman of the Central Land Council). Before all of that, Fr Dixon was a missionary in Santa Teresa, arriving in 1954 and leaving two years later. In that time he learned to speak the language and led a building program, working alongside the locals, to build houses from stone they quarried themselves.
p2435 SSFF Inidg MK 450His 8mm footage has now been used as the foundation of a new film, The Stone Houses, produced by Mary Flynn and Maya Newell for the Atyenhenge Atherre Aboriginal Corporation and Jesuit Social Services. It cuts between the 1950s scenes of everyday life on the community, including the construction of the houses, and surviving elders, filmed in the community, watching and commenting on the footage and remembering life as it was then.
Left: Margaret Kemarre Turner (in red) as bridesmaid at Santa Teresa. Still from the film The Stone Houses. (This photo replaces an earlier image from the film, changed for cultural reasons.)
We see Mrs Ryder as a young girl, Mrs Turner as a young wife. Before a marriage took place, the mission insisted that the couple have a house to live in. She duly got hers: “I thought I was married to a clever man who could build a house.”
Peter Wallace comments on the “hard work” of the quarrying and building – it was “nothing” to the men of the era. Leonie Palmer expresses her thanks to the missionaries who “grew us up to be independent”.
In similar vein, Mrs Turner expresses some upset to see “the good way we grew up”.
But some of it must have gone against the grain  They weren’t allowed to talk language, one woman reports. It was punishable by a strap on the hand, she says, though this is at odds with Fr Dixon apparently having been able to learn the language in the few short years he was there.
Whatever the case, the Arrernte language survived alongside the English that can also be heard in this film. As Margaret Carew, curator of the  Arrpenhe-nthenhe program, commented, English is also an Aboriginal language.
p2431 Apmere kardiyarlu-still-02 450The other languages featured were Pitjantjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra, Alyawarr, Mudburra and Warlpiri. The films used a range of approaches and were consistently well produced, with high quality image, sound and story-telling. Standouts for me were:
• the claymation series, Kardiyarlu kangurnu, produced by PAW Media, which uses the animation technique to great and humorous effect to illustrate the stories being told by Warlpiri people of strange encounters of the cross-cultural kind – with white people, tinned meat, rabbit, baking powder.
Above: First meeting with Olive Pink, as recounted by Jerry Jangala Patrick in Kardiyarlu kangurnu
Warlungka – Language lived through song, produced by father-daughter musical duo, Rayella (see still at bottom), and Felicity Meakins. Most of the film’s passionate message about Mudburra language survival is spoken by Rayella daughter, Eleanor Dixon, who with father Raymond is using song to help Mudburra children retain their cultural heritage through language. The film is memorable for the beauty of their homeland, Marlinja, and a wonderful sequence where the children, dispersed through the bush, each one standing alongside a tree, sing the song of the film’s title.
Artnwer – Desert Dingo, produced by CAAMA, striking for the beauty of its cinematography, which summons the allure of this Dreaming story of two dingo pups on their travels north, all the way to Mornington Island. We learn little of what actually happens along the way, it being secret business for men, but we do get a sense of the vast sweep of the songline across a magnificent landscape and of the intensity of the elders’ feeling for and commitment to their cultural heritage.
p2431 Apmere artnwer-still-01 450Towards the end of their journey they come across a disturbed sacred site and express regret that their young people are not maintaining sites. But a younger generation of Aboriginal men – including director David Tranter and narrator Michael Liddle – have come together to make this film and perhaps through it can help keep the flame alive.
Left: Donald Crookhat Thompson, senior Alyawarr custodian of the Dingo Dreaming, in Artnwer
If you put together the repertoire of this film program (knowing that there is a lot more there to draw from) and the development of the three-week Arrernte language program being staged in the old op shop, you have a rich, dynamic cultural experience – of the kind tourists, let alone many locals, are craving.
Sounds a lot more enticing for a visitor experience in the CBD than a collection of fossil bones, whatever their inherent interest for science and for visitors with somewhat specialised imaginations.
And these experiences are being produced and offered on the smell of an oily rag (especially the language program) in contrast with the $1.5m being promised for the bone museum. One would have to wonder what kind of research and consultation that proposal has relied upon.
Note: apmere angkentye-kenhe will take place from 16 June to 9 July.

Below: Eleanor and Raymond Dixon of Rayella fame in the film Warlungka – Language lived through song.

p2431 Apmere Warlungka-still-01 660


  1. Nice positive article Kieran. Yes, it’s rather a paradox that we need million dollar buildings to experience (indoors) an ancient culture when our town has all the wide open spaces with our river that formed a strong focus for life and culture throughout pre (European) history …
    However I recall too that the commercial need for people to turn out daily seems a difficult ‘ask’ for so many indigenous. Those here more than five minutes recall how the cultural events out on the north road at the (closed) Red Centre Resort required indigenous dancers to be sourced in Queensland! So any new outfit clearly needs to be “organic” and driven by Arrernte people themselves and not commercial interests. Three weeks is a start, but alone won’t change anything but give people (and tourists) here an opportunistic event. It’s what happens on an ongoing, sustainable basis that will count.

  2. Ayenge akangkeme akgnerre areme nhenhe akaltye! (I am very happy to see this learning!)

  3. Kele mwerre (“okay, good:) Amelia, MK, Leonie & Team Arrernte. A terrific initiative. I agree, Mark Wilson, that the program needs to be an ongoing one but.
    Hey, from little things big things grow (thank you Kev Carmody).
    Perhaps people could set themselves a mid-year resolution and determine to take on the challenge of learning the proposed “fifty words of Arrernte” list.
    Incidentally, young Miles Turner, nicknamed Kilometres, who is featured in your article, Kieran, is a talented guitarist.
    Currently he is studying at university in Adelaide. MK Turner’s mob are indeed something special.

  4. Fantastic. I hope to be there.
    Well done on all involved in making this happen.

  5. It’s not hard to get regular Arrernte cultural activities happening in town if you start from a place of respect and understanding. This is being done “on the smell of an oily rag” and could be much stronger and more sustainable if there was some support there. Unfortunately our government would rather send millions to a Sydney company to stage a cultural event for us (Parrtjima) – a company that has no respect or understanding and is still not talking to traditional owners.

  6. This is great news. There is urgency to enable the fluent speakers of the local First Australian languages to pass on their knowledge in this way, but additionally to be financed to “write down” their once “unwritten” languages, thereby enabling formal study for all.
    In Victoria, huge sums of guilt-stricken government money is being allocated to the “rehabilitation” of old languages that sadly, are beyond revival: It’s not good enough to recognise that Grandma still remembers the word for “kangaroo”.
    We have fluent speakers of total languages here in Central Australia; languages that are profound and vital to a proper understanding of the heritage and inheritance available to all residents, regardless of our colour and background.
    Particularly among old Arrernte women we have generous teachers happy to run appropriate programs.
    Let the government rank these teachers as at least equivalent to the fossils.
    But we are running out of time.

  7. @ Ted Egan (Posted May 9, 2017 at 11:21 am): You raise an important point, Ted, about the desirability to “write down” the “unwritten” languages of indigenous peoples in the Centre; and also make an important comparison of the importance of funding the recording and teaching of local languages “as at least equivalent to the fossils”.
    It’s very much worth pointing out, however, that Central Australia already has an extensively detailed and ongoing record of indigenous languages and culture stretching back well over a century thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the early German Lutheran missionaries and their descendants, especially the Albrechts and Strehlows.
    The astonishingly detailed and comprehensive intellectual endeavours of the missionaries was (and remains) of world significance, and was recognised as such in the universities of mainland Europe (especially Germany) a century ago.
    There is no equivalent record of such magnitude anywhere else in Australia.
    This material is housed in the Strehlow Research Centre, a building which has been usurped by the Central Australian Museum due to the decisions of Darwin-centric politicians and bureaucrats who lack awareness or are disregarding of the significance of what we have in the Centre.
    We have no need for a new national indigenous cultural centre in Alice Springs that will cost us multiple tens of millions of dollars at a time of economic constraint, because we already have such a facility in the Strehlow Research Centre.
    It’s absurd to even contemplate a duplicate cultural centre that cannot hope to match the importance and significance of what we already have here in Alice Springs.
    The Strehlow Research Centre gives us an enormous natural advantage for the long term preservation, research, awareness and promotion of Central Australia’s rich indigenous cultural heritage but there is a need for most of us locally to wake up to that fact and recognise its potential.
    And, as for the Central Australian Museum that shares the space within the Strehlow Research Centre (to the detriment of both institutions), it also deserves far more consideration of its place and role in Alice Springs than is currently being planned by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
    The decision to put fossils on display in a rented property in Todd Mall is a shabby near-sighted arrangement that has short-changed us all.

  8. You are correct, Alex, tribute must be paid to earlier linguists like the Strehlows and the Albrechts; also very worthy of commendation are todays “interpreters”, many of them Gadiya. The pressing need, however, is to recognise, on an individual level, the fluent speakers of traditional languages who are also literate in English. People Like Marrkilyi (Lizzie Ellis), Nararula (Alison Anderson), the many elderly women – especially Arrernte – who are still around, active and anxious that their old languages be properly retained, especially in written form. These scholars should be paid the academic tribute of “Professorship” along with appropriate salaries and facilities. Otherwise we will follow the path of other regions in Australia, where around 300 traditional languages have gone forever. The spoken word is not enough.

  9. With great respect to this project, I’d like to point out a fact: the “smell of an oily rag” includes $20,000 funding from the Federal Government through the Regional Arts Fund.


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